How do we measure the meaning of a life well-lived? The back of my maternal grandfather’s mass card reflects on this question in the presentation of a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of the intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.”
On the approaching 6th-year anniversary of my Grandfather’s death, my mother and I sifted through boxes of old slides dating back to the mid-80’s and prior, — photos my Grandpa had taken of my mother’s childhood gymnastics competitions, family parties highlighting some very iconic 70’s fashion choices, and spontaneous trips on his private airplane.
Flipping through these antiquated projections led be to believe that my mother and grandfather’s lives were absolutely filled with opportunities and adventures, but I felt saddened by the fact that these images, this proof of a life well-lived, had been hidden away for years in the eaves of an old attic. Even now, our stories are documented, saved, and forgotten in cell phone snippets, sometimes lost entirely between upgrades.
For hours I sat in the middle of my mother’s living room, blanketed with hundreds of tiny cardboard squares and an old Kodachrome viewfinder, trying to make sense of imprinted film stock and deciding how I could best use this for an assignment in a graduate Poetics of Witnessing course I was taking at The New School.
The guidelines were simple and vague: create a short video using footage of “something found.” Remarkably, what I found in this box of old images was a shared history. But this then inspired the next question: What is it that links us together?
As a storyteller, I’m inclined to believe that the answer lies within the stories we share across the generational divide. As individuals, we are a culmination of what surrounds us and what precedes us, our inner-worlds turning into a maze of magic, wonder and complexity.
Simply, a well-lived life is art, often presented in repetitive patterns of whimsy and beauty, like that of a mesmerizing kaleidoscope, and we are the artists. And as artists, we must take on the responsibility of turning something as abstract as our history and our emotions into something tangible, physical and concrete in order to honor and celebrate everything that came before.
I hope this piece inspires you to go through your cell phone’s camera roll and the boxes of photographs stored in your grandparents basement. See what you can find, and then share your story.